Spreading the word

John is often thought of as a difficult, and certainly a very different Gospel to Mark, Matthew or Luke – lots of flowery language, long sentences which don’t seem to connect logically to each other, details which might have us wondering – why is THAT in there? What difference does it make to the story?  Well, John is the absolute master of using symbolism. Just about nothing in the gospel should be taken literally and just about everything in it has at least one extra meaning – and often more than one.  As for details – I think it’s fair to say that when John’s Gospel includes what we might think is something irrelevant, it would have meant something to the community which produced this Gospel.

It isn’t really what the words in John say – it’s what they mean. And sometimes what the words mean is hidden from us because we live in a totally different world to those 1st century followers of Jesus. John’s Gospel is very much the experience of a community following Jesus, and trying to figure out who he was and where he fitted into their understanding of God, how the man Jesus relates to the God they already know.

Right at the start of this little story we hear that some ‘Greeks’ – which really means ‘foreigners’, not people from the country we know as Greece – want to see Jesus.  So, why didn’t they just go where he was preaching and listen? Or knock at his door? Why this procession of intermediaries who pass the word along until it gets to Jesus? The setting is important. This story happens in Jerusalem during the preparation for the Passover; right after the Gospel has Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and what we know as Palm Sunday, when Jesus was greeted by a mob proclaiming him to be the King of Israel. Things were getting really stirred up. Both the Romans and the Temple authorities were getting itchy about this very popular rabble rouser. So with all the resulting upheaval it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea for him to be out and about. Philip and then Andrew would have known where Jesus was and could get to him to see what he wanted to do. Does Jesus really want to meet with foreigners he doesn’t know at all, who might be dangerous?  But then Jesus doesn’t say, oh fine, I’ll have a word with them, but instead goes off into a mini-sermon about glorification, wheat, loving and losing life.

We heard about loving and losing life a few weeks ago in Marks’ Gospel, where using our energy trying to preserve our current life concentrates on purely self-centred stuff. Inwards, not outwards. The ‘me first’ attitude cutting us off from growing into the fulness of life which Jesus says God wants for us. Just like keeping the wheat seed carefully preserved won’t produce anything.  It has to be given up, to die in the ground and change in order to make something much fuller, much richer, bearing much fruit.

We don’t keep seeds in their packets – we plant them in the hope that they will germinate and become the leaves and flowers and maybe fruit which is much greater than one small seed. It’s risky – the seeds might not survive or grow, they might die when still tiny. However, they have no chance at all of growing if they aren’t planted. Risks are often unavoidable in the lives of humans as well as plants. We may have to risk dying to parts of our lives in order to produce growth and better fruit.

The idea of planting the seed leads rather neatly into one of the curious details which John throws into the conversation. John says the Greeks want to see Jesus. One wonders why. They’ve come up to worship at the festival, so they must be connected to Judaism in some way. Perhaps that vulnerable tiny seed of curiosity has poked its head above the soil to say, ‘we’ve heard about him, we’d like to see and know him for ourselves because his message sounds new and exciting’. The proclamation of new life, the Kingdom of Heaven, the love and forgiveness of God; all the things Jesus has been talking about has extended out even to foreigners and isn’t restricted to just one small corner of the known world. Jesus is saying God is for everyone. That’s pretty exciting, a God who doesn’t set up rigid boundaries, who isn’t limited to a members’ club with entry requirements. No wonder the foreigners wanted to know more.

It might be that the seed we plant if we talk about our beliefs and faith with friends or family – or even strangers – might grow into the fruit which attracts others into the love and life of the God we can see in Jesus. This is called evangelism, meaning spreading the message, A lot of us are probably reluctant to do this, be open about our faith. We may not have the confidence to talk about it. There’s no obvious way to tell if anyone is a Christian just by looking at them. How would any of us answer the question, Why do you go to church, what do Christians believe?

But we don’t need to stand in Leytonstone High Street with a placard and a megaphone shouting about being saved. We can show Jesus’ message in our lives, serve him and display his teaching by maybe helping neighbours who might need some shopping done, who are desperate for a human voice asking them how they are. Working for a charity which helps to clean up the environment, mending creation even just a little bit. Or…even helping to give birth to a new bit of garden outside is evangelism – an outwards offering of a place of rest and relaxation for the whole community, not just for the people who attend St Andrew’s. Outwards not inwards.  And yes, we go to church and worship. Let our friends and neighbours know that we do that. Do they wonder why? I hope that we would be quite happy to take any curious Greeks by the hand and help them find Jesus not only here but in the whole of their lives.

Today is Passion Sunday. Passiontide leads us into Palm Sunday and Holy Week, where the price of freely offered, total, self-giving love, obedience and trust was being uplifted to death on a cross. But a death rising into new, glorified, resurrected life. How can we share in proclaiming that life, planting the seed message where death isn’t the end, but the beginning of something fantastically new.  I wonder…. how could we all respond to that challenge?

© Leslie Spatt 2021